Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Small Town Poetry

I was talking with my friend John Calvert the other day, and we were discussing the situation of the poet in a small town. We both come from Accrington, which has a reasonably stocked library and used to have one bookshop. But both of us pretty soon exhausted the stock of modern poetry they held, with its Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Brian Patten, a bit of this and a bit of that.

How, if you're a writer, do you escape and find writers that might totally change the way you write, if the nearest bookshop is in the big city? Nowadays, there's the Internet, which is a fantastic resource but incredibly scattergun. How do you work out what's the best to read without some kind of guidelines? In some ways, guidelines are helpful, in other ways not. How many poets' reading list is confined to what gets published by the major publishers? How many poets feel happy to step out of the usual borderlines of poetry and try something new?

I was lucky: when I went to university here in Manchester, I discovered whole new vistas of poetry opening up. I found a copy of Lunch Poems in a bookshop. Some of my discoveries are happy accidents; and they all make up the poet I've become. I could have stayed with the small choice available in Accrington library; but there are so many poets I've discovered in well-stocked libraries, in sometimes obscure literary magazines and bookshops.

Guidelines can be useful in that they point in a direction; but they can prevent you from discovering things beyond what you normally go to. I wouldn't have discovered the New York Poets if I'd stayed within the usual boundaries of Hardy/Larkin Englishness. I wouldn't be the writer I am today without discovering Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and so many others. Including Olson: however much I'm not a fan, his way of composition by field, of creating a poem as a unit of energy, still stays with me.

But what about those who still live in small towns with small libraries and smaller (or no) bookshops? How does that affect the kinds of subjects, the forms they use, the things they think possible in verse? Bury library, thanks to the Text Festival, now has a whole set of books of the most radical writing around, from Ron Silliman to Ezra Pound. Will that produce some amazing advanced writing in 20 years time? I wonder...

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